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SoCal artists trade LA art scene for Berlin

Santa Monica artist Marisa Mandler works on her latest project in her studio in Berlin, Germany.  Mandler has found the Berlin contemporary art community welcoming.
Susan Valot/KPCC
Santa Monica artist Marisa Mandler works on her latest project in her studio in Berlin, Germany. Mandler has found the Berlin contemporary art community welcoming.

This week, museums and galleries across Southern California launched a celebration of L.A.'s post-war art scene. For six months, you can see paintings, photography and sculpture from the most creative artists in Los Angeles.

But some local artists have left the City of Angels for a city with an art scene they say is more open and free. It’s Berlin.

Yellow cranes dangle over Berlin near the city’s main train station. The cranes and work crews are a part of the landscape here, where it seems everything is always under construction, always changing.

Close by the cranes, artist Marisa Mandler is working on her latest piece — one that’ll show in L.A. in November. "These are some collages that I’m working with, these images."

Mandler points to images of dancers that inspire her. She’s from Santa Monica, but found inspiration in Berlin after grad school at USC.

She was going to stay a couple of months. Mandler has now spent three years in Berlin’s contemporary art scene.

"There’s a sense of, like, cracks in the pavement," Mandler said. "There’s just movement happening here that has definitely inspired my work. There’s a really fine line between recognizing the past and also building a future. And that I find incredibly inspiring."

Mandler elaborated. "You walk the streets and there’s all these new buildings and there’s so much happening, but then you see little gold plaques on the ground, which are memorials to the family that was taken from World War II out of that building that you’re walking in front of, or you’re walking and suddenly you’ll notice that bricks are laid differently in the ground and that’s where the Berlin Wall was."

Mandler says that sense of history is inspiring. And L.A., she says, was a tough place for a young artist to start.

"I felt it was more closed," Mandler said. "And I came here and people automatically had time for me — you know, gallerists, curators. You make appointments with them and I was used to the L.A., 10-minute coffee. And they came to my atelier and we had an hour-and-a-half studio visit. And I was just really taken with the level of kind of a genuine interest that I hadn’t felt in L.A."

Berlin has hundreds of galleries — and even more artists.

"You know the joke in Hollywood? It’s like, you know, everybody’s an actor? Everybody here is an artist," said art gallery owner Javier Peres.

Down the street from his art gallery in Mitte, Peres sips a coffee at a Berlin café. He grew up in L.A.'s South Bay, and set up his first gallery in L.A.'s Chinatown eight years ago. A couple of years later, he opened his first Peres Projects gallery in Berlin.

"The artists that I was working with from L.A., when they came here, they were like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Peres said. "There’s a sense of community, like, it’s easy to get around. You don’t need a car. You don’t need car insurance. None of that nonsense. And studios are really inexpensive"

Especially compared to rents in L.A. And Peres says Berliners are interested in contemporary art.

"People go see exhibitions," Peres said. "Like, it’s normal. You don’t have to be an art collector. You don’t have to be wealthy. People go and see art. It’s just like a normal thing that people do. In L.A., you don’t, you know. Like, it’s very much like a status thing. Only wealthy people go see art."

But Peres and others point out that art buyers tend to come from outside Berlin, despite packed gallery openings.

Walk into Gregory Teodori’s gallery in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood, past small, old-looking paintings of modern-day drugs, like Viagra and marijuana. The next room is filled with black and white celebrity portraits with pops of color — an Avatar-blue Pam Anderson and an alien-green David Beckham. They’re pencil sketches.

"And I just want people to look at it and go, 'What is going on here?'" Teodori agreed that that's what Berlin is about.

Teodori ran galleries in L.A. for 12 years before he moved to Berlin a couple of years ago. He says Berlin has a different vibe.

"Something about Berlin is preventing it from becoming the polished thing that happened in L.A. because it’s such a different situation here," Teodori said. "L.A. is based on the entertainment industry, where everything is, you know, slicked over in the studio kind of thing and polished and blah, blah, blah — that kind of stuff. And here, it’s all about being raw. And that’s the thing that makes them so different."

Teodori says he wouldn’t mind bringing that vibe, and the artists that create it, back to L.A. But why leave Berlin? "I miss the L.A. sun. I will say that."

Peres Projects will be at Art Platform L.A. Oct. 1 through Oct. 3.